A Day at the Beach

So that’s the title. I think there’s enough of a mix of familiarity and irony in it for it to be a good enough title.

“At the horizon the sea and sky merge with the morning light to form an unbroken gray wall. Closer to shore the water identifies itself through eddies and whitecaps while the sky is distinguished by somber clouds and circling gulls. The morning light however is ubiquitous and colours everything equally with its pale brush. The reporter stands on the dock resting his elbows on the worm-eaten balustrade, his hands clasped before him against the cold.”

That’s the introduction I wrote before. I don’t mind it although the reporter won’t be the protagonist, rather it will be “the man” (there’s a character name for you).

Rough outline:

(a) the man and the reporter converse on the deck or bar or cafe or whatever it is (restaurant patio?) – a lot of space spent on setting and tone, sees the boats along the shore, reporter is given a chance to reveal personality and mannerisms through dialogue and incidental action;

(b) the man goes out onto the beach where he intercepts the old man on his way to the boats; dialogue ensues; quote from the old man “don’t try to tell me about Jesus, son; I’ve known him longer than you and if He’s taught me one thing it’s the importance of making a graceful exit.” This section is based on the anti-euthanasia argument that it’s against God, et cetera;

(c) brief interlude as the old man goes to the boats and paddles out into the bay; the woman appears also headed towards the shore;

(d) second interception as the man opens a dialogue with the woman; the woman is his wife but I don’t want to make that immediately obvious – more of a reveal moment for the reader to come to; this section focuses more on the arguments about those left behind – counter argument is that at some point you have to look out for number 1 (well, I won’t phrase it that way but you get the idea); possible quotes from the woman? “this isn’t about you any more,” something about pain? My thought is that where the old man was killing himself just because he was very old, in this case the woman wants to die because of an unspecified condition causing chronic pain; admittedly this is going to be a tough one to write – maybe less dialogue and more concrete evocative? She touches his face, the trembling of her arm leaving short sharp traces of her fingertips across his cheek. Maybe not. Anyhow…

(e) interlude number duos – the woman goes to the boats, the man should help her in but doesn’t and the boatwright watches him for a moment silently before going himself to help her. He wades out a short distance with her before the water is deep enough to take the paddle and then she makes her way slowly and painfully out into the bay; the man stands on the beach for a long time watching the boat disappear into… the sunset? The gathering gloom? Something;

(f) we wrap up on the deck/bar/cafe again; the reporter is prodding for details for his story; the man is sombre and uncommunicative; the report possibly indicates his realization that the man knew the woman – sees wedding ring? “Ah I get it,” “you’ve got to learn to take the good with the bad my friend,” the reporter is selfish but says some true things relative to the theme despite himself. Possibly something in here about a chipped mug I was thinking of introducing earlier — the man returns to the deck but won’t drink from it for fear of cutting his lip and discards it… that might or might not work as a symbol. Do I need a symbol in here? The boats and the island are symbols, or metaphors I suppose more than symbols.

Let’s think about this. The conflict here is ostensibly man vs man as the man tries to stop people from going; in reality there’s no conflict there and it’s really the man vs himself as he tries to come to terms with his wife’s death. So, if we stick a symbol in there it should be about that conflict, and say something about whether he’s won or not; I’m thinking not, his wife booked out of there but he never came to terms with it, not even to help her into the boat; so what’s a good symbol for that? The cup thing… I dunno… he has a chipped cup, it’s imperfect, he isn’t happy with it – assuming the cup is a symbol of an imperfect life that seems backwards – he’s the one asking people to carry on; could be irony? He isn’t willing to drink from the chipped mug just like these people aren’t willing to go on with unlivable lives. I don’t mind that. Closing diologue then is something like reporter: “you aren’t going to finish that?” they aren’t drinking coffee I don’t think –  it’s beer (maybe more specific – ale, lager, pilsner, something new englandish?); “I haven’t even tasted it,” the man, “I’m likely to cut my lip on this chipped cup she brought me;” reporter: “a good pint of beer languishing for want of an unchipped mug? You need to learn to take the good with the bad my friend.”

 

The scene between the man and the woman is going to be a fucking bitch to write, but otherwise I think this might be alright.

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Continuing the Tale

At the horizon the sea and sky merge with the morning light to form an unbroken gray wall. Closer to shore the water identifies itself through eddies and whitecaps while the sky is distinguished by somber clouds and circling gulls. The morning light however is ubiquitous and colours everything equally with its pale brush. The reporter stands on the dock resting his elbows on the worm eaten balustrade, his hands clasped before him against the cold.

Not the worst beginning to a story I’ve ever written. I like the melancholy atmosphere it creates. The story needs to be about something to be worth reading, though. (Or writing, for that matter). Here are some thoughts:

Theme: euthanasia

Theme statement: is it right to use your own values and opinions in respect to euthanasia to judge others?

Major characters: a man, a reporter, an old man, a young woman, a woman, a boatwright.

Notes on characters:

“a man” – the protagonist, husband of “a woman” – source of conflict as his opposition to people travelling towards their deaths puts him against all the other characters

“a reporter” – the antagonist? Sort of. He’s in the story to give the protagonist someone to bounce thoughts off of. He’s a reporter for Modern Misanthropist Monthly Magazine – the quadruple-M.

“an old man” – first of three characters heading towards the shore and ostensibly towards the island, conflict with protagonist; Old man wants to die because of his age and diminished capabilities

“a young woman” – second of three characters; wants to die because of chronic pain and terminal illness

“a woman” – wife of protagonist, acts as something of a reveal when we find out they’re married – she’s the third of the characters heading for the boats; wants to die because of an inability to love or find joy in life

“a boatwright” – builds the small boats people use to get to the island

“setting” – didn’t I already say the setting was a character? I guess I should try to remember that; the village and shoreline and melancholy, grey, quiet; the bay is cold and choppy; the island is terrifying.

Story ideas:

– there’s a street lined with churches and temples; most are deserted but the Shinto temple is fairly busy still – comments on relevance of Shinto faith

– reporter is a bit of a slimeball; wagers with the man that he can’t convince anyone to come back from the shore

– island is terrifying: something monstrous lives there, island is shrouded in shadow and only the disturbing sights of monstrous appendages thrashing against the sky can be seen: idea – that’s what the man sees when he looks, but the people going to the boats don’t see the same thing

– each of the three characters going to the boats represents a different reason someone could seek euthanasia; each encounter involves the man supplying one of the key arguments against euthanasia and having it defeated (obviously I want to make this subtle and not beat the reader over the head with it)

– arguments: slippery slope, sanctity of life, value of suffering

(1) old man – slippery slope, are we opening the door to old people being killed off as an unwanted burden – involuntary euthanasia?

(2) young woman – value of suffering: does the man seek out suffering? maybe yes, is it of value?

(3) a woman – the man’s wife, reveal late in story that they know each other, that the man came here to stop her, that they’re married – sanctity of life: needs fleshing out here… she feels her life isn’t worth living even though there’s nothing physically wrong with her, crosses the line from euthanasia to suicide

 

 

 

 

Setting as Character

I’m starting to think that setting and character are the same thing. Or maybe just that they should be. It seems to me that in any story either the setting is important or it isn’t – that is, the setting becomes a part of the tale or it’s just a background without much significance. Neither is right or wrong, it’s just that different stories have different needs when it comes to setting. Consider “Mine”, the story that won the CBC short story contest this year: the entire story takes place in and around a house somewhere. Presumably it’s a house; I don’t think it actually says, and then the plot takes us out into the yard where the story ends. That isn’t much of a setting, but that story didn’t need much of a setting. Then consider Lord of the Rings – the whole damn thing is about setting. In that case I’d suggest the setting is as much a character as any of the proper “characters” are.

I’m working on a story for which I have a setting, partly have a theme and characters, and definitely don’t have a plot. Here’s some scribblings:

At the horizon the sea and sky merge with the morning light to form an unbroken gray wall. Closer to shore the water identifies itself through eddies and whitecaps while the sky is distinguished by somber clouds and circling gulls. The morning light however is ubiquitous and colours everything equally with its pale brush. The reporter stands on the dock resting his elbows on the worm eaten balustrade, his hands clasped before him against the cold.

 

First Pass at Beginning a Sci-Fi Tale

It was late enough that the cleaners had already been through and the floor smelled like lemon and wax. I could see them finishing up towards the end of the hall, light-industrial labourers with small frames and arms a foot or more longer than their legs. I watched them for a minute, enjoying their easy practiced motions. One was sweeping up whatever dirt and clutter the day had left while behind it two more used wood handled mops to burnish the floor.

 

At the other end of the hall Zack Lucas was accepting congratulations from a steady stream of smiling professors and gushing undergrads. Tucked under his arm were a bunch of rolled posters and a film canister he would gesture to occasionally as he smiled, nodded, and shook hands. I was standing at my locker moving text books around to create some space for the posterboard backdrops of my own project. I soon abandoned the effort and with a firm shove I jammed the posterboard in, the stiff material cracking as it yielded to the locker’s confines. I looked down the hall to see if the noise had attracted any attention but no one seemed to have noticed.

            Past the small crowd I could see the custodians finishing up. There were three of them, all the same light industrial labour breed. They had small frames and arms almost twice the length of their legs. One was sweeping the hall while behind it the others were mopping, leaving a coating of lemon-smelling wax in their wake. Their movements were precise and consistent – there were no lazy sweeps of the mops or corners left untouched. Something in them was almost graceful, despite the mundaneness of their work. The crowd around Zack Lucas was oblivious to them

First Pass at Beginning a Sci-Fi Tale

It was late enough that the cleaners had already been through and the floor smelled like lemon and wax. I could see them finishing up towards the end of the hall, light-industrial labourers with small frames and arms a foot or more longer than their legs. I watched them for a minute, enjoying their easy practiced motions. One was sweeping up whatever dirt and clutter the day had left while behind it two more used wood handled mops to burnish the floor.

Dogworld

We’re past the formal creative writing class now and into the world of self-propelling writing circles. The tricky thing here is that people aren’t financially motivated to participate in the writing circle – I mean, it’s not like you paid $300 to take the class and so you have some motivation to produce; instead it’s just the desire of the participants to keep the writing workshop going. So. Take that as you will. For the first workshop we had only 3 pieces to review and that comfortably took up a couple of hours, so maybe it’s alright if we have only a small number of pieces each workshop.

 

I wrote a piece called “Remembering Trevor” for the first workshop. It wasn’t particularly well received as far as I could tell, but truthfully I wasn’t expecting that much from it. Not to say it was a throw-away piece, but rather that it was a piece that started with a kernel of an idea and had to be massaged and kneaded vigorously to produce a short story. Anyhow. Next step is to start something new, I suppose. Between you and me, I’m not sure the feedback is of sufficient quality in this workshop to really generate meaningful improvements to the work. My hope would be that through the workshop process, a story could be revised and rewritten over and over until something great emerges, and then that new version could be reworked and the process would start all over again, until eventually the story was of a quality that was really worthwhile – maybe even publishable. We’ll see if that ends up being the case or not.

 

For my next tale, I thought I’d branch out and try to do something sci-fi-ish. I had this idea of a setting in a dystopian future where people have been bred like dogs into a number of breeds, each quite anatomically different from the other. The outline of the story as I’m envisioning it is this:

 

The world is ruled by the one breed that’s remained pure natural human. All other breeds are pure-bred by the ruling breed for specific functions. So there’s a bunch of working breeds, some water breeds, cold weather breeds, and guard/fighting breeds. These breeds are still Homo sapiens, but they’d be like the difference between a wolf and a domestic dog – lots of anatomical differences based on how they’ve been bred. So the cold weather breeds have thick fur, the guard breeds are powerfully muscled but fiercely loyal, worker breeds might be small and tough or stout and powerful or whatever based on the type of work. But besides the ruling breed, they’re all pretty stupid.

The story concerns a protagonist of the ruling breed who’s in university to become a genetic engineer of breeds, basically one of the guys who guides the genetics to ensure the breeds stay healthy and pure. He starts seeing things that make him doubt the morality of these breeding programs, which initiates the tension in the story. The big reveal is that he finds out that the ruling breed he’s part of isn’t natural human at all, it’s just another selective breed – this time selected for intelligence over physical qualities. The conflict is that since there are no natural humans left, there is no unbiased view of moral life – everyone is just acting according to the demands of the behaviour and conditioning built into their genetic selection.

As the story unfolds, our protagonist encounters ‘feral’ humans, breeds that have cross-bred outside of the genetic mandate. These humans are outlaws always on the run from the fighting humans bred to hunt them and destroy them. But, the ones that survive and reproduce for a few generations across breeds start to regain their intelligence and become natural humans again. So our protagonist is drawn to this outlaw life of renegade human breeding. I’m seeing the story closing as he finally joins them, and the final scene is him running with a pack out into the wilderness with the sound of fighters chasing them in the distance, and he has this feeling of terror and exhilaration and freedom all at once and he loves it.

 

Anyhow – that seems like an interesting sci-fi tale, and it is a departure from the other few stories I’ve written. I think I might start chipping away at it, and if there’s space in the next workshop it would be nice to squeeze it in, but otherwise it can wait for March.

 

Setting

Here’s my first attempt at a directed writing “assignment”. I put that in quotes because of course there is no true assignment here, but rather an attempt to use some of the writing assignments we used in our creative writing class to develop material for use in my short story. So this is targeted towards the setting, which is the house of the old man’s daughter and her husband, also the home of the dog.

 

A house in the suburbs. The house is a split-level, with the living room, dining room, and kitchen on one level, the family room and a bathroom half a level lower, the bedrooms and main bathroom half a level higher, a partially finished basement yet another half level lower, and a small rear entrance area on a level of its own – about a quarter level below the kitchen. The house is on a corner lot, so the front yard is quite small but the back yard is a large wedge of land. The front yard is grass-covered by a crusty layer of snow about four inches thick, but uneven. There is a single evergreen tree, about eight feet tall but with a crooked trunk that leans it back somewhat, towards the house. The house faces north-west. On the south side of the house is a long paved driveway running from the street to a double-car garage behind and to the south of the house. The driveway has been cleared of snow, but piles of dirty snow sit in hard curbs along the length of the driveway and to either side of the garage door.

 

Inside, the house is warm. Most rooms are carpeted in an older multi-hued brown shag. The exceptions are the kitchen, the back entrance, and the two bathrooms, which all have yellow-brown linoleum flooring, and the basement, which is bare blue-grey concrete. The walls are painted in various shades of off-white, as though they were all once the same off-white colour, but time and repainting has made them all subtly different. There isn’t a lot of art. Only a single oil painting hangs in the living room over a long green polyester-covered sofa. The painting is of a mountain at either sunset or sunrise from the angle of the light. Possibly the mountain in the painting is far enough north or south that the light is always at a steep angle, in which case the painting could be of the mountain at almost any time. The other furniture in the living room is a reclining arm-chair upholstered in light brown polyester, and a glass and wrought iron coffee table with a handful of magazines and a small empty glass serving dish on it. The dining room is crowded with furniture: there is an over-large dining table in heavy, dark wood. The table has thick, carved legs that curve outwards from under the table top before curving back inwards before they end with leafy carvings at their bases. Against the wall at the head of the table, farthest from the living room, there is a hutch of the same dark wood. The hutch is open, displaying a large collection of silverware and china.

 

Not bad for a start.

 

The Old Man’s Reverie

Something that’s kind of kicking my ass about this damn story is the old man’s reverie. Let me throw down a current outline and then get into this a bit more.

Part 1 – the scene: 500 words on the house at Thanksgiving

Part 2 – the old man and the dog: another 500 words or so meditating on the old man, the dog beside him, and the old man’s imminent death

Part 3 – the old man’s reverie: 1,000 words or so letting us slip back into the old man’s memory of an event from his past, something allowing us to see the tragic nature of his character – the story-within-a-story is one of loss and regret and possibly self-defeat

Part 4 – the dog’s reverie: 500 words (possibly less) letting us see the dog’s memory of an event of loss, likely the death of his brother; the juxtaposition is that the old man’s memories are of loss and regret – the dog’s memories are of loss without regret

Part 5 – the end: 500 words or so more tying things up: the old man is driven home after some mild arguing about who should take him, he arrives at his retirement home, he looks at the doctor’s letter on his coffee table, story ends

 

Alright. Now, I’ve gone on at some length about the troubles I’m having with POV changes within the story – Dog’s, Man’s, Dog’s, Man’s, like that. You know, at least there’s some god-damned symmatry there. But more to the point I’m currently struggling with the old man’s reverie. What the hell does he think about for 1,000 words that shows us he’s a tragic train wreck of a human existence?

 

 Here’s a thought. Maybe I’ll start developing characters and the scene itself. Along the lines of the writing exercises Joel had us doing – just spilling out all sorts of material related to the people, the dog, what everyones’ appearances, personalities, histories are… everything. I’m hopeful that through that the old man’s backstory will come to life enough that I can reveal something about him. Next blog – characters. Or setting. I’m not sure which. Maybe both.

 

Point of View

I’ve been thinking about this story about the dog and the old man with cancer. I’ve outlined it briefly a few times, and the sticking point to me is the damn point of view. Let me run through an outline and see if I can identify where point of view becomes problematic.

 

A household at Thanksgiving. We’re seeing things through the eyes of the family dog. There are several people present – an old man on the living room couch, alone except for the dog sitting beside him, three adults at the dining room table, one is his son, another is his daughter, the third is his son’s wife. His daughter’s husband is also present; he’s in the kitchen doing dishes. There are also three children present, all in the living room playing a video game on the television. Dinner is over and people are relaxing. The adults are all conversing about various topics. The daughter’s husband is separated from the conversation by being in the kitchen, but is still engaged and participating. The old man is separated by being in the living room, but he is not part of the conversation. The dog can smell the old man’s colon cancer. No one else seems to know about it. It is remarked upon that the dog is spending the evening sitting with grandpa, but to the dog this is natural because it is good to spend time with people who will soon be dead. The old man slips into a reverie. The point of view switches to the old man so we can see his narrative from his eyes. His story is one of loss and regret. The immediate story is taking place at Thanksgiving in the year 2000, so his reverie is of a time prior to that. The old man has been divorced since 1970. His son is 41 and his daughter is 38. He is 69. When the old man’s reverie concludes, we return to the Thanksgiving setting and the dog’s point of view. The dog has a reverie of his own, thinking of his brother now dead and how he has no regrets about it. The juxtaposition is that the old man has a life of loss and regret while the dog has a life of loss without regret. The gathering concludes and the old man is to be driven back to his retirement home. There is a mild argument about who has to drive him home, quickly resolved. The dog watches him leave. At the old man’s retirement home, he says good-bye to his son and goes to his apartment. It’s dark and small. He picks up a letter from his kitchen table and considers whether he should tell anyone he has cancer.

 

So obviously I need to figure out what the old man’s reverie is. Now that I’ve outlined it again, it doesn’t seem insurmountable. But still… I don’t know. We’re in the dog’s point of view… then we switch to the old man for his reverie… then we come out of that into the dog’s view again… the we end with the old man. The problem I see here is with the old man’s reverie. How do I show the regret he feels? Let’s say his story is about something prior to his divorce. Then I would need to show regret in the present, since it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for him to regret his actions before his divorce. So the story takes place after his divorce when he’s experiencing regret… ahhhhh! I’m not liking this. In fact, I think I should start by writing the old man’s reverie, and if I can’t make it work then fuck this story. What troubles me is that I could write a story from the old man’s life and allude to his regret back in the present, but I can’t because we’re in the dog’s point of view back in the present. So that’s the thing – either I can build the sense of regret into the past story, or else I have to stick with the old man’s point of view after his reverie ends.

 

more… thought… required…

 

One Hundred Thousand

My creative writing class has concluded, but some people from the class have taken the initiative to start up a sort of “writing circle”. The idea is to continue the process of writing and soliciting feedback from the group. Something Joel said to me after the last class that quite resonated with me was that for basically everyone the first 100,000 words they write is pure crap. Or he might have said ‘shit’, I can’t recall. I think that’s likely true, for everyone who isn’t some sort of literary genius. I’m actually thinking that our writers’ group should be called “One Hundred Thousand”, or possibly “One Hundred Thousand Words” in honor of the process of getting those first shitty 100,000 words done with so we can actually start producing some decent stuff.

 

The first meeting of the group is on January 10 (or 9 depending on who you ask, so I’ll have to determine what the actual date is). The tentative structure is that we’ll review from 4 to 6 pieces per meeting, and we’ll meet once per month. I imagine we’ll need some rules on how often one may submit, based on the size of the group.

 

With that in mind, I need to start writing! I’d love to have something submitted for the first meet, but at the same time I don’t want to rush to churn out something crappy just to get it in before the submissions limit is reached. I have an outline of a story in mind:

 

This story is about a dog and his family of humans. The story takes place over a holiday, likely Thanksgiving, when the extended family is together at the dog’s house. The basic plot is that the dog can smell that the family’s grandpa has colon cancer. No one else knows this, including the grandpa himself, but the dog knows this guy is going to be dead within a few months at the most. So the story is about the dog pointedly hanging out with the grandpa while the rest of the family pretty much ignores him, the way that families generally ignore the old folks. I’m envisioning a possible scene where some of the kids try to pull the dog away from grandpa to come play, and the dog actually growls at them to leave him alone, and there’s a bit of scolding and trouble for him having growled at the kids.

 

The story would be filled in with some reveries. I’m thinking at least one reverie on the part of the dog where he’s thinking about his brother Trevor (tentative name) who’s now dead. I’d like there to be some real attachment on the part of the reader for Grandpa as well – otherwise he’s just a motionless lump taking up space in the story. The POV changes could be tricky, because I’m envisioning starting off from the dog’s POV, then switching to the grandpa, then back to the dog. The grandpa’s reverie would be about… I don’t know. It should connect to the theme of loss, or of appreciating what you have while you have it. The story wraps up with… I’m not sure yet, but initially I was going to say I would show the grandpa dying and the family commenting on how the dog had been spending so much time with him – but that’s too heavy-handed. I think it could be better to just end the story with the dog watching as the family argues about who has to drive grandpa back to his retirement home.

 

So… tricky. Tricky story to write. I can see a lot of potential pitfalls in writing too sappy or too heavy-handed, which I have been known for. Still, I think it’s worth trying; and you know what else? I think it’s important that this writing group becomes a safe place for us to experiment with different themes and genres; so this definitely fits into that.